Armin Van Buuren is one of the most popular and famous DJs of the last 15 years. Despite public tastes and genre popularities having changed over that time, he has maintained his high standing, attested to by Van Buuren remaining in the top flight of worldwide DJs by public vote (he has been DJ Mag's No.1 DJ a record number of five times).
Beginning his DJ/production career in the mid to late 90s, Van Buuren's first big success came from the track 'Blue Fear' which became a hit on the burgeoning trance music scene. He followed this with 'Communication', another hit, in 1999 and alongside several other key productions and remixes this helped consolidate his place as a leading new entrant to the trance movement. He has since produced countless EPs plus the albums 76 (2003), Shivers (2005), Imagine (2008), Mirage (2010), Intense (2013) and Embrace (2015).
Also in 1999 he founded his own Armind record label which is now part of a broader group of labels operating under the Armada group, which he co-owns. In 2001 he started his weekly A State Of Trance radio show which, thanks to vast international circulation, reaches millions of listeners worldwide. Fast approaching its 1000th edition, it is now streamed on camera and contains popular features such as ‘Service For Dreamers’ in which audience members introduce a chosen favourite. He has also released his own compilation series and tours under the A State Of Trance name as well at his Armin Only dates.
The Grammy nominated DJ has collaborated with the likes of Hardwell, Tiesto, Cosmic Gate and Ferry Corsten and has in recent years branched out into exploring the EDM genre while continuing to make and support trance. He records under several aliases including Gaia. King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, who was crowned that day. Van Buuren
He plays at the largest festivals in the world, has held down highly successful residencies in Ibiza's biggest clubs, was the first solo dance act to sell out Madison Square Garden and in 2013 was the headline act for a live audience in Amsterdam celebrating the crowning of King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands.
DJs don't really get much bigger than Armin Van Buuren, so Marko Kutlesa was extremely thankful that the busy DJ and family man was able to afford him the time to conduct the following exclusive interview ahead of A State Of Trance at Creamfields Steel Yard.
Hi Armin! Where are you?
Hi! I'm in my radio studio in Amsterdam right now. We just finished recording the show.
Looks nice! Do you think you've changed your music or methods for the audiences you now play to? I imagine those audiences have changed in the time you've been performing because of the popularity you've attained.
Well, yes and no. Obviously I've been exploring some different sounds , flirting with some different genres like EDM, pop, psy trance and uplifting trance. But every year I make it a mission to also release a couple of my more old school Armin tracks. You have to keep it exciting for yourself, you can't keep doing the same thing over and over . I guess that would be boring.
Were your Armin Only parties in part a response to the perhaps less specialist audiences you may regularly play to in shorter sets on large festival stages?
No, not necessarily. I hope to reach a big audience with them. Armin Only is a very expensive production to put on. I bring 12 or 13 guest artists, musicians. You have to put a show like that in a bigger venue and so you have to cater to a different crowd. But everyone who visits an Armin Only show will tell you that I always stay true to me. The show I did in Amsterdam in May, I actually had the original 'Blue Fear' vinyl from 1996 on the turntables. It was a special moment.
I make it a thing with Armin Only to reach a big audience but also to stay true to the sound where I come from. I'll never abandon that. Some of my older fans may be critical of the choices that I've made, but I've still got my tunes from the past, I'm still very proud of them. I still produce a lot of trance tracks, either as Gaia or as myself. I just have to keep it moving forward. I can't keep doing the same thing over and over. If you go to McDonalds and you have a Big Mac it still tastes the same as it did 20 years ago. With Armin Van Buuren it's just a different Big Mac, I guess. I have to move on.
Music has been your main love since you were young. As your audiences have grown, how much interest do you take in other aspects of such large performances, such as sound quality and visuals?
Well, I have to stress that I find them very important. In comparison to even just a few years ago, I now tour with a dedicated sound guy, just for me. I fly him in, whether it's for a small gig or a big one. I also have two guys for visuals who fly with me. On an average gig, whether it's a festival or a club, I fly in, on my own costs, five people to make sure the show runs smoothly and I have that little bit extra for my fans.
You celebrated 20 years as an artist this year. When you started out, did you imagine you'd be doing it for this long and could you imagine that this is what it would become?
No, absolutely not. I'm just very thankful each day. I know that I should be very thankful. It's wonderful. I think I enjoy it more now than I used to enjoy it a few years ago. I feel less stressed. I have a couple of kids now and I'm just enjoying myself. I just see how special it all is, how lucky I am, being able to do what I love and make a living out of it, travel the world. I don't do stuff that I don't want to do, I don't talk to people I don't want to talk to. I'm just having an amazing time and if I can keep doing that then that's an amazing thing.
So where do you see yourself in another 20 years?
Probably still be making music. Maybe I'm retired as a DJ? I don't know yet. At the moment I don't feel like retiring. It still feels like I have something to say.
Having already achieved so much in your career do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
Absolutely. A Gaia album is next on the horizon. That's something I really want to do. That's going to be going a little bit to the left of things, if you know what I mean.
I heard your remix of Human Resource 'Dominator' from last year's 'Old Skool’ mini album at a big EDM festival in Hungary this summer. It was quite a moment for the crowd. I like how you managed to make it even more scary and menacing than the original. Are there any other old school rave tracks that you would like to update?
Ah, many. A few that spring to mind would be Mike Dunn 'Magic Feet', Steve Bug 'This Is Bug'. I updated Speedy J 'Pullover, so all the old rave tracks, early Prodigy stuff, Front 242, all the 808 State stuff, 'Cubik', I love that. That stuff really inspired me. That was the reason I did that Old Skool album. I wanted to show people where I come from. That was before the word trance was even invented. It really was a different era.
You've now made over 850 editions of your radio show, A State Of Trance. It has a huge audience. What kind of responsibilities do you feel you have with it?
I'm proud to say that I don't think the formula of A State Of Trance has changed. The formula, since episode one, is a non stop mix with the latest in trance and progressive. That's what it is. It's more informative, now I have a sidekick, we have more themes on the show like future favourite, trending track, service for dreamers. But it still mainly is a one stop shop for any trance lover.
If you listen to A State Of Trance every week, I guarantee you're up to date with 70% of the tracks that matter (I'm still a human being, I can't guarantee I play every track). I like to make a trance show that I would like to listen to as a fan. I'm still very much a fan of trance music.
Having the element of a free broadcast video every week, so people can watch and listen whenever they want to, is really beneficial. I see it as a big responsibility to invest in the quality of the show, the quality of the tunes and guests, make it exciting, interesting, have unusual items on the show. I try to keep what I say short and snappy and interesting.
How have you been affected by the radio show recently moving to a live camera stream format? You can't turn up in your pyjamas and slippers any more.
No, ha! I really missed doing a live show. Whether we do it live or whether we record it, we now have to do it in one take. So, I missed hearing the entire tune and mixing it with other tunes. When you quickly skip through the promos every week, it doesn't really give you a full idea of the track. Now, after every show, I've actually listened to every tune that I've played in their entirety.
I'm really enjoying being in one studio with Ruben and all the guests. This week we have First State and Ben Gold as guests, we have a guy from Australia talking about a track that he loves. It's really all about the music. And I'm really into the music.
A few weeks ago, when we were doing everything in Ableton and I could correct my talking, it was less exciting. I felt I needed a new motivation for A State Of Trance to reach episode 1000. The world has changed. All the young kids are now on Facebook and Youtube. They don't watch regular TV any more, they're really into the new medium and so that's where I want to be. If you want to be able to see what's going on, that's the kind of show I want to make.
I come in and do it and once it's done I can't change it. The only thing I do is that I also do a Dutch version of the show because for a Dutch station I feel I have to have Dutch language.
I'm at the Armada offices right now. I co own Armada, but I never really was here much. I don't run the company. I'm a shareholder and of course behind the scenes I'm involved in a lot of management decisions, but I wasn't actively in the office. And I missed that. I missed the contact with the young A+Rs here, I missed hearing the tunes on a big soundsystem, I missed seeing people. So, now, every Tuesday or Wednesday, I drive down to the office, record the radio show and I get so much more interaction. I enjoy myself so much more.
What is the most memorable or surprising audience submission you've had in the relatively new Service For Dreamers segment?
We had a wedding proposal.
What was the track for that?
I can't remember. We could probably look it up. I think it was 'Not Giving Up On Love' or something.
What records do you expect will make it into your annual A State of Trance Year Mix released at the end of December?
Really the tracks that I put in the year mix are almost 100% based on the standings of the votes. Having said that, I usually do include two or three tunes that were massive in my set that maybe didn't make it into the 100, just because I feel they are essential to the sound of the year. But it is a public voted tracklist. Every year it's a big fight to get the rights to every tune for the mix and put it online.
Can you guess what the public might be voting for this year? What do you anticipate is going to be in there?
My favourite tracks are Protoculture 'The Descent', I really love 'Fallout' by Davey Asprey, Jorn van Deynhoven's new remix of The Space Brothers 'Shine', there's quite a few good tunes this year. I think 2017 has been a really good year for trance.
Ben Liebrand mentored you when you were learning how to mix and produce. What's your favourite Ben Liebrand remix?
Phil Collins 'In The Air Tonight'. Or Art Of Noise 'Moments In Love'.
You have consistently appeared very highly on annual charts ranking the world's best DJs. How does that affect you, if at all?
It used to affect me a lot. That ranking is sort of an Oscar to win and I'm not going to lie, of course I dream of winning it again. Having said that, I've never paid anybody, I've not campaigned massively, I've just said voting is open, vote for your top five DJs. I think it's good that the voting is there, but in a way I do think it's like comparing apples to oranges.
It's like comparing The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. How can you compare my sound to Carl Cox, Sasha or Ferry Corsten, Marshmello? It's different music. It's like comparing tennis to football.
Having said that, it does say something about popularity, it does say something about how fans appreciate your work. Yes, it does give me a good feeling that, after sixteen years, I did go up again. But it's not something that I celebrated non stop. I'm happy about it, I drank a glass of champagne, but it's over now and I'm moving on to the next big thing. It's not the first thing that enters my mind when I go in the studio “I have to go up in the DJ charts”.
When I read those lists I can't help but notice that they're very male dominated and that most of the guys are white, which is striking as house and techno music are originally black music. What do you think about the other inclusions in such charts?
Well, like I said, it's a very weird list. It's not comparing all the trance DJs and all the EDM DJs. The techno scene is a completely different scene to the trance scene, different heroes, different parties, different atmosphere. It's a completely different thing.
I think there's not enough females in the top 100. I definitely think we should have more of that. A couple of years ago I actually tried to have A State Of Pink, which was nothing but females in the room. And it worked, it was nice, but I do wish there were more sisters. I think women have great taste in music and, if you ask me, I think 40 – 50% of that list should be females. Why not?
You played back to back with Hardwell at this year's ADE. I've seen online you're supposed to be repeating that at 2018's Ultra South Africa. How was the experience? Will you do anything differently next time?
We haven't planned any other back to backs, to be honest. This was just a one off thing. The reason was very simple. I did a solo show in the arena, sold out the arena twice myself. Then I was going to be in a line up, playing a one hour set between all other DJs, which I love. But it was the 5 year anniversary of AMF, it was the closing event and I was thinking, I'm just going to stand there again, for one hour, mixing tunes? I don't know. It just didn't feel very exciting.
So, that's when the idea came to do a back to back with somebody radically different like Hardwell. We made a tune in the past, we're good friends and I thought why not? Obviously it's something that the trance fans might not be happy with, but I did a two hour set on the Thursday which was just down the road, we broadcast it as well.
I think it's all a matter of keeping it exciting for yourself. You should be scared to not repeat yourself with your tunes or your show. It was a one off thing. We're not going to tour as Hardwell and Armin Van Buuren or anything. That's definitely not the plan. There's a million reasons to say no to doing a show like that, but I wanted to. It was a laugh.
Are there any other DJs you'd agree to playing alongside in that format with whom you haven't already done so?
It all depends on the music. I don't want to say no to everyone, instantly. I don't say that I could do it back to back with everybody, but if the music's right and it fits my style, if I can feel my identity in it, then why not. I think music becomes interesting one you start to include unconventional elements or collaborations.
My last artist album, on 'Embrace' I worked with Eric Vloeimans who comes from the world of jazz and plays with a classical orchestra. He plays the trumpet, a completely different side of things, a very cool thing but separate from me. I see things like that as a challenge. If I stay in my own cocoon, in my A State Of Trance bubble, and I feel safe, I know what I have to do. If I have to go and make a trance tune, I know which singers to call, I know what chord progression the breakdown should be, I know which riff and synthesizer to use, I know what mastering I should use.
I'm not saying that I would instantly make a hit, but I would know what to do. And I still do that. Last year I released a tune as Rising Star with Betsie Larkin called 'Again' and it did really well. I'm super proud of that tune, but I can't do that every day. It's something I've done so many times. I need to use unconventional instruments, unconventional collaborations, just so I can be excited about it.
Being just a regular clubber and music consumer, what should I take from the news released earlier this year that major label Warners have bought Dutch independent label Spinnin for $100 million?
Well, it's definitely a change in the scene, obviously. Spinnin is a highly respected label, they're focussed on a different sound and it definitely meant a lot for the birth and the boom of EDM. They did really well and hats off to them. I think it's another phase, same thing like myself. They want to move on. They think that maybe with the help of a major label they can get their records more easily on the radio, so it does make sense in a way.
On the other hand, if you're independent you don't have to answer to anybody, you can just release the music you want to release. So, things are changing. Eelko has left Spinnin, so I heard, and he was always CEO, so I can imagine that company is a little different now, but it doesn't need to change. For a lot of people things will stay the same. I don't know. It's just as much of a wild guess for me as it is for you, ha!
If someone offered you and your partners the right amount, would you sell your Armada group of labels?
I don't know. Never say never. At the moment we are very happy. We just set up a UK office and a New York office. That's something we wouldn't do if we were about to be bought up. I don't think it's likely to happen. We're not just up for sale. It's more than just money that we're making here, we're doing what we love. If it offered an opportunity for us to work with a different mind of people, if they could get our music to more labels, more people, then it might be an option. It depends.
You played for the newly crowned King and Queen of the Netherlands in 2013. Do you think the monarchy is a good idea for countries like mine, the UK, or do you think the French had a better idea when they cut their heads off and made a republic?
Ahahaha. I do believe in symbols. I do believe in traditions. I'm a tradition guy. Like Christmas, I celebrate Christmas. I think it's cool that we have a king. It's good to have traditions. In a way the French are very traditional as well, they just don't have a king. I guess Holland is good because he represents us and does a good job. Same goes for the UK. But having said that, I also love France and there's something to say for having a president. I don't know. I don't really have an opinion about it to be honest.